The Power of Groupthink
Groupthink is a phenomenon discovered by Irving L. Janis. Groups at times don’t gather enough information to make an informed choice. In doing so, alternative choices are not recognized. If they took the time to explore different viewpoints, they may have come out with better answers, avoiding poor results and ending up with a more well-rounded resolution. Ways in which groupthink can happen are through strong outside influences to make a good choice, group cohesiveness or pressure towards group uniformity, and the presence of a tough, resilient leader. Another part of groupthink that people get caught up in is that the suggestion of an alternative solution can appear as disloyalty, which is another reason people don’t speak up (Fiske, 2014).
Space Shuttle Challenger
The Challenger Disaster
The reason the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 is mentioned as an example of groupthink, is because it was shown that the key engineers on the project had noticed structural damage in the components months ago but did not say anything. They felt it was insignificant, and there would have been a delay in the project and media backlash. Ultimately this poor decision cost many people their lives. One would think, how could this have happened? What powerful phenomena is taking place that seemingly brilliant rocket scientists were unable to speak up. Groupthink happens more than one thinks. The power of group decisions and to belong to a group is a very desirable factor. There are ways in which to avoid groupthink, so incidents like the Challenger disaster are avoided and hopefully never happen again.
I would like to clarify, while the media has had its’ issues in the past, i.e. paparazzi attempting to get the perfect shot of Princess Diana resulting in a horrific car crash, it was not the case here. With respect to the Challenger disaster, the issue itself was not actually the fear of the media; the issue was a result of groupthink within the NASA organization.
There was a breakdown in communication between NASA engineers and the NASA management team. There was also a noted fear, within the NASA culture, against speaking up about problems as the focus. NASA administration wanted to focus on being ‘operational’ as opposed to ‘developmental.' It would have been more pertinent if they structured each mission as though it was the first one. The NASA culture also showed a significant overestimation of power, lack of vulnerability, close-mindedness, and pressure towards uniformity. The members of the management team did not receive accurate information regarding defaults and made a decision to launch without complete knowledge of all internal issues (Ferraris & Carveth, 2003). It’s a shame to say, but the fear appeared to exist more within the organization itself.
Jim Jones and The Peoples Temple: Jonestown
Another infamous example of groupthink is that of Jonestown. Cults are often very susceptible to groupthink in getting people to conform. In the beginning, the group was presented as somewhat of a utopia for many, but later many realized it was nothing but a work camp, working long hours in the heat, far away from their families in Guyana. People were scared, and if anyone disagreed against the doctrine, this could mean trouble.
The so-called mass suicide that took place was a product of being forced against their will to drink poisonous punch. Those that were not forced were victims of groupthink. There were over 900 people that died that day including children. Congressman Ryan came in good faith to find out what was happening upon hearing negative reports. Film crew members, concerned family, and his adviser were also traveling with him at the time.
They were attacked at the airport when they tried to leave with the few members that were able to speak up about wanting to get away from Jonestown. Jim Jones had the congressman killed, and tricked everyone into drinking the punch by saying there was going to be an attack on Jonestown when it got back to the U.S about what had happened to Congressman Ryan. Jim Jones had convinced them that suicide was the only option.
The phenomenon that took place in Jonestown with this group is unique in that they went from being individuals in the world, followed by group polarization, to being fully obedient. As they were led out of the United States deep into the isolated jungle, their mind frame shifted from conformity where they thought they were making these choices of their own free will to total obedience. Research showed that Jim Jones had such authoritative control of them by the end with the lack of supplies, long work hours, lack of food and sleep; obedience had become all-consuming.
Apparently, towards the end, a woman was found with a message written on her arm “Jim Jones is the only one” (Cahill, 1979). While there were certainly people who had not 'drunk the Kool-Aid,' so to speak, there were plenty who had. They felt the all-consuming effects of obedience, comforted by absolute power. This situation was truly unique in that people were brainwashed in a social psychological continuum. There were phases of conformity, group polarization, groupthink, and obedience. Some people wanted out, while others accepted the ‘beauty of dying.' There was a survivor that was interviewed later who had been away from the camp during the final moments and missed the whole thing. He was quoted as saying.
“If I had been there, I would have been the first one to stand in that line and take that poison, and I would have been proud to take it. The thing I’m sad about is this: that I missed the ending” (Osherow, 1988, p. 89).
Negative Groupthink Consequences of Jonestown
The leader Jim Jones induced guilt feelings in the People’s Temple members. This guilt was a means of control. The members were also ordered to give up family member ties as well as anything that was of personal interest to them before joining the group.
At this point, they took off towards their utopia in Guyana. They spent hours listening to Jim Jones's doctrine on the loudspeakers, hours working in the sun, and because the bunks were divided by gender, married couples were separated.
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Negative consequences resulting from Jonestown consisted of people being afraid to speak out against their leader for fear of what would happen once they realized they were trapped (Everyday Citizen, n.d.).
How to Avoid Groupthink
Encourage ideas to be challenged without reprisal (Avoiding Groupthink, n.d.). In this particular case, when joining a new group that may have different ideologies, it is important to note whether individuals are encouraged to speak out and voice their concerns on various topics during meetings. If this behavior is looked down upon negatively, this could be signs of groupthink, or in the case of The Peoples’ Temple, a sign of a cult. One of the ways to avoid poor decisions is always to be on the lookout for signs of groupthink, and deal with them as soon as possible (Avoiding Groupthink, n.d.).
Always examine your risk in any decision you make when part of a group. (Avoiding Groupthink, n.d.). Look at your options as to what the group is asking you to give up and what sort of things you may be gaining, Are these beneficial, are basic human rights being impinged upon? If you notice the risk are high, re-examine and make sure you take steps to fully validate any decision before it is ratified (Avoiding Groupthink, n.d.).
“We are not supposed to all be the same, feel the same, think the same, and believe the same. The key to continued expansion of our Universe lies in diversity, not in conformity and coercion. Conventionality is the death of creation.”
— Anthon St. Maarten
About.com. (n.d.). Retrieved from Jonestown Massacre: http://history1900s.about.com/od/1970s/p/jonestown.htm
Avoiding Groupthink. (n.d.). Retrieved from Mindtools: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_82.htm
Everyday Citizen. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.everydaycitizen.com/2008/10/groupthink_and_the_importance.html
Ferraris, C., & Carveth, R. (2003). NASA and the Columbia Disaster: Decision-making by Groupthink? Association for Business Communication Annual Convention (pp. 1-13). Association for Business Communication.
Fiske, S. T. (2014). Social beings: Core motives in social psychology. (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Osherow, N. (1988). Making sense of the nonsensical: An analysis of Jonestown. Readings about the social animal, 68-89.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2014 Donna